Friday, September 19, 2014

kill reviews addendum: storm

Storm is widely known as one of the most broken mechanics ever printed. It lent its name to various combo decks: from several Vintage strategies since its debut, to blue/red Extended decks, even to Pauper, where Grapeshot and Temporal Fissure ruled the day. Mark Rosewater invented “the Storm scale,” to rate the likeliness of mechanics returning to the game. This is a big impact for a keyword that appeared on a dozen cards in Scourge.

Because of the vast whisperings about its power level, it has often become more legend than anything grounded in fact. Let’s start with what Scourge’s cards did on release. Players who didn’t experience them firsthand might assume that, like Affinity, it dominated Standard immediately. This isn’t remotely true. Mind’s Desire was, at best, a tier two strategy for a few months within the extant Tight Sight deck; numerous pro players attempted this combo concoction at high-level tournaments to disastrous results. Once Odyssey left, Mind’s Desire was FNM-level if not completely unusable.

But how about the next step up at the time, Extended? Keep in mind what else was legal with Desire: Necropotence had only been gone from the format for a year, and decks like Oath of Druids were tournament staples. The next year would bring Mirrodin’s brokenness, ushering in a new wave of combo that made Mind's Desire look like a kitchen table strategy by comparison. This resulted to 2003 banning six cards from Extended, none of them with Storm.

Even after that, Mind’s Desire was just another Extended deck. It was, in fact, the deck that made me a true tournament Magic player. Before it, I had always taken pride in constructing my own decks, but seeing this turn four combo deck take down tournaments had me goldfishing it in Magic Workstation endlessly. I ordered the whole thing online for a PTQ. We weren’t home the day before the tournament, when the cards were supposed to be delivered, so my mom drove me to the post office as it opened to get the cards, then dropped me off at the PTQ after the player meeting had already started. I sprinted up the stairs, gasped at the judges as to whether I could still get in, they pointed me at an empty chair, and I threw money at someone for entry. I sleeved up my deck before the first round and made it to top 8.

So… that’s because the deck was absurdly good compared to the field, right? Still no. Elves with Glimpse of Nature had a full turn on the deck, winning on turn three instead of four. Storm, instead, had a more favorable matchup against control, and those games of combo-on-control are fascinating if you enjoy Magic at its most strategic and chesslike. There are baits, gambits, wild sideboarding strategies, and playing around a dozen cards at once. I adore those matchups.

Okay, but… it was broken in Legacy and Vintage, right? It’s true that Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy before it was even released. It’s difficult for me to muster much animosity at them for this. They realized immediately the effect it would have, and didn’t let anyone play a single match of sanctioned Desire-legal Legacy. This is a thousand times better than allowing one GP: Flash, then banning the deck afterward, or printing a “not broken” but miserably unfun card like True-Name Nemesis.
There was also Tendrils of Agony, of course, which has gone on to see a lot of Legacy play. But I ask: is this truly a bad thing? Is giving Legacy another combo archetype an inherent evil in a format with Force of Will and a dozen other “instant win” decks floating around?

Why does Storm get more hate than Griselbrand, Goblin Charbelcher, or Mindslaver?

There is one indisputable truth about Storm: of all sets, it did not belong in Scourge. Juxtaposing a “play lots of spells” mechanic with a “large converted mana cost” theme is comedic. But this does not make Storm bad, it makes Storm bad for Onslaught block.

The reason that Storm defines “the Storm scale,” the reason it is held up as the epitome of brokenness, is that it appeared in the middle of the largest push toward creature-centric Magic in the game’s history and thumbed its nose. It is a mechanic not for the drafter, not for the Standard player, not for the average Joe. In a small town art museum, it is next to tender realist portraits and smooth impressionist works as a jarring, violent, postmodern sculpture. Mothers gasp in shock and hide their child’s eyes. It is a vulgarity.

Keep in mind that Storm does very little on its own. The actual cards with Storm are not enablers, they are kill conditions. Mind’s Desire costs six mana, and requires a ton of setup. It needs efficient card filtering and tons of cheap Ritual effects. Without those, it is unplayable. With those things getting excised from modern Magic, Storm could exist today. It would be completely irrelevant.

The idea of Storm’s return being impossible is also a bit funny, because it already returned in Time Spiral. Those cards were, arguably, more problematic than Storm the first time around. Dragonstorm, a Timeshifted Scourge card, did absolutely nothing in Scourge, but when combined with Rite of Flame and Bogardan Hellkite, it won tournaments. Grapeshot killed uncountably more players in Standard than Tendrils of Agony ever did.

I’m happy that Storm exists. It provides an alternative to creature-based Magic, allowing a different sort of player to interact on a completely separate axis. I enjoy this. This blog as a whole, in fact, traces its lineage to Storm. I started playing Elves in Extended because Mind’s Desire rotated out (it was never banned). I then made a blog to talk exclusively about combo decks, with a name that fit my penchant for sitting alone for hours, practicing the mechanics of solitaire combo: Killing A Goldfish. I would be nowhere in Magic without Storm.

Storm isn’t just a card for combo. Storm has, by this point, defined what combo can be. Instead of just a dumbass combination of two cards like Pestermite and Kiki-Jiki, Storm provides a deck that functions as one holistic machine, each Sleight of Hand a glimmering cog to turn the Tendrils of Agony. These decks, to me, are the highest form of beauty that Magic has achieved.

As we’ve learned over the years, not every card is for everyone. Storm might not be for you. Storm is for me, and I love Storm.


Tlaon said...

It's great to see a take on Storm that doesn't assign it inherent power. The engine that lets someone cast 19 spells in the same turn is probably more dangerous than the card that happens to reward them for it.

It's especially frustrating compared to a mechanic like Dredge, where you could put it on an otherwise blank card with a high enough value and instantly increase the potency of a Legacy deck.

It's great to have someone writing about Magic design that isn't Rosewater. Thanks for writing these!

lieronet said...

To echo Tlaon, it is interesting to see educated perspectives on Magic design from someone not named MaRo. I haven't agreed with every point you've made, and I think you've been a bit disingenuous once or twice, but it's been a blast reading these set reviews and digesting your thoughts on them. Keep writing insightful Magic content, I'm loving it.

Anonymous said...

Personally I hate Storm, but mostly for semantic reasons. Storm decks are "critical mass" decks in the same vein as Burn or Ramp, but they somehow hijacked the "combo" term for themselves.

Telmo said...

BRAVO! Storm is love!

Mario said...

I actually don't know where to stand regarding storm.

On the one hand, I have the impression that it's a case of the Hypnotic Specter Syndrome: the problem wasn't Hypnotic Specter, but Dark Ritual. But does it make sense to make an environment totally devoid of rituals and cheap cantrips just to be able to use Storm? I'm not so sure, although it's worth noting that cantrips and rituals aren't as present or good as they used to be.

Furthermore, Wizards doesn't seem to be fond of combo because it removes interaction from the game. I would guess that's the reason why they tried to stop doing Modern PTs, and I stand with PVDDR on this one: Modern is awful because a very big percentage of it is combo. Storm, by its very nature, is a combo mechanic.

Also, I don't understand you dislike Cascade so deeply, but are so lenient when it comes to Storm. They both are mechanics that, in the right deck, give you too much for too little, and one could say the Dragonstorm combo decks of RAV-TSP Standard were as oppressive as the Jund decks of ALA-ZEN. I guess it's not a coincidence that Hypergenesis (I guess they found banning Ardent Plea and Violent Outburst too ridiculous), Bloodbraid Elf, Seething Song and Rite of Flame are banned in Modern - although I know your thoughts about the Modern banned list, too.

amyfus said...

The difference is any deck with a low cmc in the right colors benefits from cascade. You don't have to do to much building around to get cascade to do some work for you, just have stuff with low cmc, while you need to craft an engine for storm to be good.

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